Embraced by Embers

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Whoever coined the term dysfunctional family must have had my evil, deadbeat father in mind.

Not only has he killed me several times—too bad for him my Phoenix powers keep bringing me back—but he’s also trying to take over the world. Literally. Thank goodness I now have two siblings by my side. Our liegebond is growing just as strong as my magical ties to the love of my life, Jake. After we send double agents to infiltrate our father’s headquarters to report his every dirty move, we think we’re finally gaining the edge in this bloody war.

Except it turns out we have our own mole to worry about, something that becomes frighteningly clear when deadly assassins keep getting way too close for comfort. Is the traitor one of my new liegesworn who are supposed to be magically bound to protect me above all else? Or is it someone even closer; someone whose betrayal will cut me to the bone?

Battle lines are being drawn, but it’s getting difficult to tell who is on which side. My powers may be increasing—but so is my emotional vulnerability. And if we don’t figure out who the traitor is, Daddy Dearest just might succeed in making his cruel vision of the future a reality. Leaving my loved ones dead, mind-controlled minions, or the traitor who brought my entire world crashing down.

Read on for an excerpt:

Chapter One

Some people threw around the phrase dysfunctional family for small-time stuff like sisters stealing their favorite clothes or parents telling them no when they wanted tattoos in high school. Then there were those lucky folks like me, with mad scientist fathers trying to literally take over the world. On the bright side, at least only one of my long-lost siblings wanted to help Daddy Dearest turn me into a mindless minion.

Guess that meant our family was only half dysfunctional.

The other half of my family currently stared at me as if I were the crazy one.

“You want to do what now?” Amadia “Dia” Patterson asked, hands on hips and eyebrows reaching for the sky. Her dark brown skin and riotous black curls contrasted with my pale white skin and straight golden locks didn’t immediately scream sisters; but the ice-blue eyes all Elijah Garrett’s genetically-enhanced children shared sure did.

And in the case of we two sisters, so did our snarky personalities.

I blew out a breath and fought to keep my voice calm. Difficult when an imaginary time bomb was ticking like a machine gun inside my head. “Send someone to infiltrate Saint Gabriel to figure out what the hell Daddy Dearest and Baby Brother have been up to lately. And what their future plans are.” When her eyes narrowed in her patented Death Glare, I held up a hand. “I wouldn’t send you or Nic back into that viper’s den. We’d send an agent from Cassidy’s Own. Preferably more than one.”

Dia couldn’t help the snicker that escaped when I used that name any more than I could help my own wince. Who the hell ever would have guessed I’d become the namesake and leader of an elite corps of badass monks dedicated to keeping magical balance in the world? Considering I’d been the foremost skeptic dedicated to disproving magic even existed before it brought me back after a fiery death, that person would not have been me.

And yet, here we were.

Our other baby brother, Nic—the one who wasn’t an evil mastermind following in our sperm donor’s footsteps—tilted his head to the side. “Are you talking about sending some of our Elemental agents or ones who can also Mindbend?”

Elementals were humans who could harness the magical energy of one of the four physical elements. Mindbenders with psychic powers were far more rare. “Neither. We only have a few people who can actively Mindbend to begin with, and now is the time to muster as many Elementals to our cause as we can. We’ll need every Mindbender we have to help with that.”

He frowned. “You can’t possibly mean to send human agents.”

“Not exactly. They’d be Elementals, and they’d become Cassidy’s Own before we sent them off on their little adventure, but they wouldn’t truly be ours.

Jake huffed out a laugh from where he sat on the bench around the ceremonial circle where we were taking a break from my latest Mindbending 101 course. Led by none other than his mother and aunt, who were currently not on speaking terms with each other. Something that made things extra-credit awkward. The man I called bondmate and who our Elemental Clan considered my husband, despite our lack of marriage certificate, squeezed my hand in a sudden show of support. “Now I see why the Powers That Be selected you to be our newest liegelord. You think so far outside the box that most times I can’t even see over its edges.”

Of course, thinking that way could be both a blessing and a curse. It got me into as much trouble as it ever got me out of. Probably more.

Liegelord was a gender neutral title, thank you very much. One I was still getting used to. It was also the reason I’d been chosen as the new namesake and nominal leader of that elite corps of badass monks. Although let’s be honest; I was more a figurehead than anything. When one had access to dozens of people who had been kicking ass and taking names for centuries, one would be beyond foolish to ignore their wisdom. I was becoming an expert at figuring out when to heed that advice and the few times it was worth going against.

Dia folded her arms across her chest and exchanged a doubtful expression with Nic. “Care to share whatever earth-shattering revelation you just had with the rest of the class, Jake?”

He unfolded his long legs and rose fluidly thanks to decades of practice in the martial arts that most Clan Zi warriors embraced. Jake excelled at multiple disciplines so much that he’d made instructing them his full-time job back in St. Louis. Back before this struggle with my deadbeat dad started.

“Knowing the way my beautiful bondmate’s diaboli—I mean brilliant—mind works, she wants to revive some of Drew’s fallen Elementals, liegebond them, draft them into Cassidy’s Own, and send them back to St. Gabriel as double agents.”

I don’t know what caught me more off guard. That Jake had come to know me so well in the few months we’d been together or that he seemed to find my diabolical mind so attractive. Then again, these desperate times called for desperate measures, and we needed someone who could go toe-to-toe with Elijah Garrett in every possible way. Unfortunately, that pretty much required me to embrace whatever diabolical genes he had passed on to me. And made me fear what embracing that part of my nature might ultimately mean.

The ice-blue eyes of both my siblings widened at this all-too-accurate pronouncement; not in shock like I expected but something more like admiration. The smiles that spread across their faces, so different from my own since we took more after our mothers than Garrett in looks (thank goodness) caused incandescent warmth to bloom inside. Would I ever get used to the emotions that swept across me when they granted the slightest sign of sibling approval?

All signs point to no, as my trusty Magic 8 Ball would say. I couldn’t help the answering smile that took over my own face.

Dia’s voice changed from disapproving to supportive in a heartbeat. “That is indeed brilliant, big sis. Fight fire with their very own fire. Plus you have a precedent of sending revived minions back to him with messages to fuck off.

Nic’s voice also thawed considerably. He looked more like Jake’s brother than mine considering his Thai mother’s heritage and his silky dark hair styled in a spiked-up fauxhawk. “You think Garrett’s minions who followed Drew here will willingly pledge their oaths to you?”

I let out a bark of laughter. “Highly doubtful. I’m sure Drew brought the ones he felt most loyal to him rather than Daddy Dearest.”

My brother frowned slightly. “Then what leverage are you going to use?”

A new voice spoke from behind. “The leverage of either they take oath to Clan Zi and your sister, or Clan Zi takes them from mostly to permanently dead.”

I turned and caught sight of Jake’s younger brother, Liam. Once I might have called him an archenemy. Now he was more of an occasional thorn-in-the-side who liked to flirt with my brother. “Ding, ding, ding. Give both Zi Brothers a prize.”

Jake planted a loud kiss on my cheek and snaked an arm around me before fist-bumping his brother. I had to admit that it felt good to see these two brothers, once estranged, now finding solidarity once more. Of course, it helped that they were currently united by feeling betrayed that Jake’s twin, Colin, had faked his own death to run off to join the circus. I mean Hikaru’s Own, those badass monks who now called themselves Cassidy’s Own.

Liam’s gaze moved from Nic, whose cheeks suddenly reddened when I gave a sisterly smirk, to meet my own. “I begin to share my brother’s growing sense that you may not be such a disastrous choice of liegelord as I might once have feared.”

My mouth dropped open because damn, that was actually pretty big praise coming from him. He followed his mother’s tough love school of thought and then some. “Keep it up, Liam, and I might get too big for my britches.”

Dia honest-to-god snorted at that. “The way you eat anything not bolted down and manage to not gain an ounce? That’s not gonna happen.”

I rolled my eyes. Maybe I’d once been a healthy-eating junkie, but that had been more about trying to improve my quality of life than worrying about putting on a few pounds. The dual nature of using both Elemental and Mindbending powers meant that my metabolism was amped up higher than an NFL team bulking up for football season. No matter how many calories I ingested, my body burned through everything to fuel the magic being channeled through it. Considering I’d been proud of my natural figure, which every woman was entitled to feel, it was starting to become a sore point.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Anyway. I thought the four of you would be my biggest critics once I proposed this plan.”

Jake gave my shoulders a squeeze. “I made the mistake of knee-jerk doubting you over that whole Keith thing, and he turned out to be the key to us kicking your evil brother’s ass last time. I’m learning to trust in your instincts where Spirit is concerned. I’m assuming it’s intuition that has you leaning toward this plan?”

I nodded slowly. “Well, yeah, now that you put it like that; I suppose it is. I meant what I said about having too few Mindbenders to risk on a spying venture, and now is the time to be building our Elemental forces rather than thinning them. Especially with Isaac back in St. Louis pushing to get us Freeholder support. If we can convince one or two of our captives to liegebond with me and take oath to Cassidy’s Own, they’ll be doubly bound by magic not to betray us. We can use all the inside info on Daddy Dearest’s plans that we can get. Especially considering we haven’t heard a peep out of him in the days since Drew’s attack.”

Nic tilted his head and pursed his lips. “It has been way too quiet since we finished cleaning up that mess Baby Brother left.”

That nickname made Drew absolutely livid; which was, of course, why the three of us now used it at every opportunity.

Liam spoke up again. “Riku just sent word through Ju Hai that everything at the monastery is prepared for the big ceremony. We can transport the captives with us and give the ultimatum there.”

By captives he meant corpses and by suggesting we transport them there he meant it would be far easier to make their deaths permanent if necessary. Toss in the fact that we were also combining the ceremony binding the loyalty of Cassidy’s Own to me for the duration of this war with an official declaration of war from Clan Zi, and we could kill three birds with one stone. Beholden Clans were nothing if not efficient.

Of course, I couldn’t resist giving Liam grief. “What is this world where you not only praise me faintly but also agree with my suggestion? Am I awake? Am I still sleeping? I can’t tell, and it’s really freaking me out!”

Dia’s hand reached to pinch me and retreated before I could slap it. “Definitely awake!” She snickered at my curse, giving me one of those saucy smiles that made me regret we hadn’t grown up in the same household. That would have been a ton of fun; for the two of us, anyway.

I caught Liam making broody-googly eyes (don’t ask me how he managed both at once) at Nic, before Jake’s brother glanced back at me. “Well, when you make a lot of sense, Cassidy, of course I’m going to agree with you. That’s called living in the real world.”

Jake displayed the better part of valor by rolling his eyes at the same time I rolled my own. Good thing, too, because I was the one he had to live with. “Speaking of the real world, it’s been over 30 minutes since Mom and Aunt Ju Hai left on what was supposed to be a twenty-minute break. You don’t think they killed each other do you?”

Liam rubbed the stubble covering his chin; the beginnings of a goatee I suspected was the direct result of my brother drooling over celebrities with facial hair. Something that had me re-evaluating my uneasiness over the thought of Liam pursuing Nic. Maybe this was more than just a casual flirtation to Liam, because that was only one item in a longer list of things I believed he was doing to gain my brother’s interest. Not that he needed to work too hard at gaining that.Nic definitely seemed interested. The fact Liam continued to put forth this much effort anyway was what had me thinking he must feel something more than passing fancy for Nic.

My uneasiness over this whole thing just further proved how much trouble I still had trusting other people. I forced myself to think about all the ways Liam had shown he cared about Nic, even if neither had publicly declared their feelings. Something inside softened as I thought back over the little things Liam had recently done. Growing his facial hair out, taking an interest in the sitcoms the rest of us loved, buying the celebrity magazines Nic loved reading with Dia and Rhianne, and making sure Nic had first choice of all the foods he liked come mealtimes.

Boy, at this rate he might even graduate from thorn-in-the-side to just Jake’s annoying little brother.

“Nah, if they had killed each other Dad and Uncle Shan would have said something by now.” The two pairs of bondmates were part of a larger magical bond known as a Quatrain. One of the benefits such bonds granted was the ability to sense when a bondmate died. A temporary death would have a noticeable dampening effect on the bond; whereas a permanent death would rip through that bond like a nuclear bomb.

I blinked. “Wait, was that an actual joke?”

Dia snorted again. “You mean an attempted joke?”

Nic cracked a smile at that, then glanced at Liam as if worried he might have offended him. By Liam’s continued broody-googly eyes, he didn’t have to worry.

Jake kissed me on the cheek again. “Believe it or not, Cass, but my brother here was quite the jokester when we were growing up.”

“If you think I’m going to fall for that one…”

Another voice chimed in from behind, this time belonging to Jake’s sister Rhianne. “No, it’s true, Cass. Liam’s pranks on random people in the Clan used to be legen—wait for it—dary!”

Everyone snickered at that, since we’d taken to watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother after long days of magical practice as I tried to master both my Phoenix ability to channel the physical element of Fire, thanks to my dearly departed mother, and my Mindbender ability to channel Spirit, no thanks to Daddy Dearest. The television marathons were how we’d discovered Nic’s preference for scruffy men.

Rhianne hugged both her brothers in turn before bumping hips with the rest of us. “Apparently Aunt Ju Hai got a vision of what you were out here planning before you even started planning it—so annoying when she does that—and she and Mom said you could take the rest of the day off. They’re in there with the Firsts and other Clan Elders planning the best way to, and I quote, transport the captives. The goal is to leave by noon tomorrow, assuming they secure a refrigerated truck by then.”

I pretended to shudder. “The last thing we need is to get pulled over by mortal police with a dozen unrefrigerated corpses in August.”

“Tell me about it,” she agreed. “Oh! I’m supposed to pass on a message from your sweetie, Dia.” Her voice took on a singsong tone used by annoying younger siblings the world over. Never mind that she wasn’t actually Dia’s younger sibling. “Isaac got held up by Freeholder business so he’ll have to meet us at the monastery for the ceremonies rather than here like he originally planned.”

I had to shove aside the pang of guilt that struck, since I suspected his Freeholder business involved Dorian Garcia stirring up all kinds of shit for Isaac ever since my father revived Garcia after I sent him back to Daddy Dearest in pieces.

Dia frowned slightly. “Why didn’t he just text me that himself? Or better yet, call like a grown-ass man should when he’s in a relationship.”

“Ooooh,” Rhianne teased in that same singsong. “So you admit that the two of you are, in fact, in a relationship?

Dia’s hands darted out once more, this time to playfully tug on Rhianne’s sarcastic air quotes. “You keep that up, and I’m gonna relationship you in the face.”

Jake and I shared indulgent smiles, feeling very much the mature older siblings. Which lasted the 2.5 seconds it took for Dia and Rhianne to catch on to our superiority complexes. They narrowed their eyes, nodded at each other in a way that could not bode well, and embraced their Elemental abilities so unexpectedly I could only shriek when Rhianne’s Selkie abilities combined with Dia’s Gryphon control over Air to splash water from the nearby lake onto our clothes.

Things devolved very quickly after that, with Liam and Nic trying (but failing) to take cover away from the fray and me hijacking the two women’s abilities to give them a dose of their own medicine. Jake jumped into the thick of things by adding his Earth into the mix, resulting in mud missiles flying every which way. Within minutes, all six of us were sodden, dirty messes torn between maniacal laughter and getting in our last little magical digs before we finally called a truce that actually stuck. At that point we decided to clean off by jumping into the lake fully clothed, sunbathing to dry off, and enjoying what could be our one last respite before all hell broke loose again…